FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Playoff games are always tiring for the players and coaches. This weekend, they exhausted the fans, too.
You are tired, aren’t you? You probably felt spent after Saturday and Sunday’s early games. It took the first halves of the late games for you to just absorb all the reversals and comebacks from the previous games. You spent Saturday night wondering what Rahim Moore was thinking in the final seconds of the Ravens game, and what all Packers defenders were thinking during the final 54 minutes of the 49ers game. You recovered just in time to wonder whether the Falcons had any defenders at all.
Colin Kaepernick thrilled you. Russell Wilson delighted you. Trindon Holliday and Zach Miller occupied a surprising percentage of your conscious thoughts. It was a grueling and thrilling 13-plus hours of football, a trial for your stamina and equilibrium. It was like climbing a sheer cliff at a high altitude, except that you may have never left your couch.
If you feel like you need a football weekend to recover from this football weekend, it’s because you watched:
- One of the longest playoff games in history, which also happened to be a stunning comeback upset.
- What would have been the greatest comeback since Frank Reich and the 1992 Bills, except that the Seahawks left 31 seconds on the clock, eight more than the Falcons needed to execute the least anticipated comeback since the one the Seahawks mounted minutes earlier.
- Colin Kaepernick’s one-man effort to obliterate Joe Montana from the 49ers playoff record book, in a game that also happened to be close and high-scoring before Kaepernick achieved hyperspace.
- Patriots-Texans, a simple, stick-to-your-ribs playoff game to help settle the stomach after a weekend of pigskin debauchery.
Did you complain about how dull last week’s games were? The Joe Webb experience, and all that? Some vengeful football deity hath smote thou for thine impudence with a suitably ironic punishment. “Gorge yourself on NFL drama, whelps! Kaepernick shall rush for 181 yards! The Falcons shall play well for one half and tempt destiny in the second. Feast on football goodness, you ungrateful gluttons, until your eyeballs pop out and your jaw rolls under the entertainment center! MUAHAHAHAHA!!!!”
The Patriots’ 41-28 victory over the Texans, the weakest game of the weekend, was a fine game. Tom Brady, one of the NFL’s greatest veterans, had a signature performance. So did J.J. Watt, one of the NFL’s most exciting young stars. Everyone you would tune in a Patriots-Texans game to watch, from Adrian Foster to Wes Welker, had a moment in the spotlight except Rob Gronkowski (more on him later). There was strategic diversity and tactical intrigue. The score was 17-13 at halftime. The Texans mounted a late comeback after the Patriots had one of their scoring clusters. Lots of exciting things happened.
But it was impossible to concentrate on Patriots-Texans, unless you were a Patriots or Texans fan. The rest of us were over-stimulated. I spent the first half sitting in a state of gobsmacked, giddy numbness. It was 17-13 at halftime before my head cleared enough so I stopped thinking about Jacoby Jones, Matt Bryant and Kaepernick’s magic carpet ride, and noticed that Wes Welker already had 130 receiving yards.
As the Patriots took something resembling control of the game (after watching the Seahawks erase a 27-7 deficit in the fourth quarter, control becomes an illusion), there was time to take stock of the weekend. Chuck Culpepper listed the best divisional playoff games in NFL history last week. His list may not perfectly match yours or mine, but counting honorable mentions it runs 18 strong with close, memorable playoff games. Two of this week’s games belong on Chuck’s list, and no one would throw a challenge flag. The Ravens’ upset of the Broncos will take its place among NFL history’s other double-overtime games. The Falcons’ last-second salvage operation was similar enough to last year’s 49ers’ win against the Saints (two sudden lead changes in the final seconds, the complete disappearance of defense late in the game) to rank the two games as tied for ninth on Chuck’s list. No other weekend in history had two games in the top 18.
Chuck also listed a series of “Best Jolts That Weren’t Great Games but Livened Up the Weekend:” 62-7 Jaguars wins against the Dolphins, Rex Ryan stunners against the Patriots, and so on. Kaepernick rushing for 181 yards and leading the 49ers to 579 total yards, the most in the team’s Montana-Young-Rice-Walsh fueled postseason history, definitely qualified as a “jolt.” Two all-time great games and a jolt officially make this the best divisional playoff round in NFL history.
If you measure the quality of football entertainment by Net Thrills per Fan – a stat I just invented – you could argue that this was the best NFL weekend ever. A full 16-game slate provides much more raw material and great plays in bulk quantities, but some fans are stuck watching Chiefs-Jaguars or raking leaves because the home team plays on Monday night. In terms of sustained, concentrated drama that the majority of fans were able to watch in real time, it is hard to argue with the last 36 hours.
There were so many “gee-whiz” plays in the last four games that it is impossible to list half of them without turning Mandatory Monday into a James Michener novel. If you missed the two big games because you were working or giving birth or got caught up in snowboarding on NBC, subscribe to NFL Game Rewind immediately and load Ravens-Broncos. (Skip the penalties and challenges and it will come it at around three hours.)
Just to select one moment: Matt Bryant had just kicked the field goal to give the Falcons a 30-28 lead with eight seconds left on Sunday. But this was not an NFL two-point lead with eight seconds left. This was a Big East basketball two-point lead with eight seconds left.
Matt Bosher inbounded for Villanova … er, kicked off for the Falcons … and his attempt to squib was more of a splurt. The ball dribbled up to Heath Farwell’s feet at the Seahawks 46-yard line. Wilson completed a pass, and the Seahawks faced a Hail Mary situation.
There may have been 50 people on earth confident of a Falcons victory at that moment. The way the second half played out for the Falcons, with Dunta Robinson running around flailing his arms as continentally open receivers caught passes and bounced off tacklers, you could have gotten even odds on a Seahawks touchdown. Remember the Packers game in Week 3? Everyone in the press box at Gillette Stadium did. We were glued to the screens. Tom Brady was warming up below us, but he could have been run over by a golf cart with spiked tires and no one would have reported it.
Wilson’s pass was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones, moonlighting as a Hail Mary defender and looking like a likely challenger for Robinson’s starting job. Had some Seahawks receiver come down with the football instead of a Falcons receiver, we would not be talking about the greatest playoff weekends in NFL history. We would be talking about the greatest moments in sports history.
Here in Foxborough, the drama was minimal. Tom Brady became the third quarterback in history to throw 40 postseason touchdown passes, and he passed Joe Montana for postseason wins. But Brady was subdued, even by his laconic standards, at his press conference. “I’m tired, man,” he said when a reporter asked him why he was so quiet. “It’s a lot of emotional energy spent.”
Suck it up, Brady. You just had to prepare for and play a game. The rest of us had to watch four of them.
The big story from an otherwise predictable 41-28 Patriots victory over the Texans here at Gillette Stadium is that Rob Gronkowski reinjured his right arm. Details were sketchy on Sunday night, because Gillette Stadium is the worst place on earth to get accurate information about the Patriots.
By late in the third quarter, most of the world knew that Gronkowski broke his right forearm, needed additional surgery and was likely to miss the remainder of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. This information was texting directly from Gronkowski’s agent’s fingers to God’s smartphone and became immediately available on Twitter and every major football news site in America. My wife probably knew that Gronkowski broke his arm.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady claimed ignorance about the scope and severity of the injury after the game.
“I’m not sure,” Belichick said when asked about Gronkowski’s status. He even claimed to not know whether Gronkowski was taken to the hospital or not.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Brady said about the Gronkowski injury, though he leaned forward and his voice rose at the end of the statement, turning it into a little question. Brady sounded exactly like a high school student caught with a cheat sheet who says, “It’s a study guide that fell out of my folder? Are you buying this? Maybe?”
Vince Wilfork had the best reaction: “We don’t have him? Oh, shoot. I’m sorry, I had no clue.” Some reporters are suggesting he said something other than “shoot;” as funny as a “Glengarry Glen Wilfork” segment would be, it sounded like “shoot” to me. But then, Belichick’s censors may have infiltrated both my memories and my tape recorder.
It is important to remember that Wilfork never shares a huddle with Gronkowski, spends Patriots offensive series resting and planning for his return to the field and does not slip off to check Pro Football Talk after a swig of Gatorade. There is nothing unusual about a defensive tackle not knowing anything about an offensive player’s injury.
Neither Belichick nor Brady has time to sneak a peek at his text messages during a game, either. Still, both Belichick and Brady were briefed on Gronkowski before they met the press, and many coaches are able to give some detail on major injuries to key players during post-game press conferences. Andy Reid, for example, started every press conference with an injury rundown. There is information control, and then there is Belichickian information control: the worst place to be when seeking information about his team is in his presence.
Brady, at least, acknowledged Gronkowski’s employment with the Patriots, even going so far as to admit that his star tight end’s absence forced the Patriots to make some adjustments. “We had a whole plan built for him and Woody (running back Danny Woodhead, who was also injured). We run the first series of the game and all those plans change … We have certain plays for certain guys, and Rob and Danny are a big part of the plan.”
That’s TMI, Brady. Name, rank and serial number next time.
Gronkowski’s absence does three things to the Patriots. First, it takes away one of their top downfield threats. Second, it makes it easier for defenses to adjust to their crafty personnel deployments. You can’t cover Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez with the typical linebacker, but you can take your chances with Michael Hoomanawanui. Third – and this is often overlooked – Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, and excels at controlling edge rushers in pass protection. Terrell Suggs is coming next week, as is rising star Paul Kruger, and Ray Lewis just found a Patriots tight end he can still cover.
Belichick and Brady will be in for an unpleasant surprise when they learn what we all know they already know but won’t admit to knowing. Oh, shoot.
If you do not like this reality, you are free to deny it and substitute one of your own.
In the old days, someone who denied objective reality was consider a flake, an eccentric or, if he or she floated just so, a witch. Thanks to the Internet, however, deniers can find kindred spirits and enjoy mutual validation. No opinion is too contrary, no conspiracy theory too wacky, to spawn its own denier movement. That’s particularly true during the NFL playoffs, when the stakes are higher, the personalities more notorious, the spotlight is brighter, and (as anyone who enjoys a little Twitter with their football knows), the debates grow more rancorous.
Now, you cannot go into full-on denial and claim that the Broncos are hosting the Texans next week; no one will come to your playoff party. But you can bend and stretch the details of what happened this weekend until the facts, warped and unrecognizable, fit your favorite theory. A weekend full of big surprises and upsets is guaranteed to fuel some denial movements while throwing cold water on others.
Here are some popular denial movements, their media-shorthand-ready “must end in –er” names. They all contain a kernel of truth, wrapped in yards and yards of crazy yarn, and they all got a healthy airing out this weekend, for better or worse. Almost always worse.
Peyton Manning Denial (Peytoners): Peytoners have thrived for years, and Saturday’s loss will spark another recruitment drive. You have no doubt read some Peytoner literature: Manning is choke artist who chokes during his playoff choke sessions while choking on his chokishness. Moderate Peytoners concede that Manning is an excellent regular-season quarterback. Orthodox Peytoners insist that he has been an “average” quarterback throughout his career, his record propped up by the greatness of Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Edgerrin James, Blair White and a media conspiracy that wanted him to win so he could generate endorsement dollars.
You don’t have to sleep on a pillow shaped like Tom Brady’s face to be a Peytoner, but it helps.
Manning’s 9-win, 11-loss postseason record becomes relevant when comparing him to Joe Montana and other contenders for Best Quarterback Ever. But his playoff record does not qualify as evidence that he is seized with some nameless horror when he finds himself in the same situation he has found himself in at the end of nearly every year since late in the Clinton Administration. And of course, it’s not Manning’s job to defend 70-yard touchdown passes up the sideline with 31 seconds.
The Peytoner movement has survived a Super Bowl victory (undeserved, because he faced Rex Grossman), another Super Bowl appearance and the crippling irony inherent in using 20 playoff games as evidence against a player’s merits. Three hundred years from now, academics will argue that Manning, like William Shakespeare, never existed. And that if they did exist, Shakespeare would beat him in a playoff game.
Read Option Denial (Capersers): Capersers must be differentiated from read-option skeptics. I am a read-option skeptic. I think it’s a great way to jumpstart an offense and allow a mobile young quarterback to have some early-career success. It is also a fine way to ensure that your team’s name is linked to Dr. James Andrews by search engines. To be skeptical about the read option is to recognize that history favors schemes that minimize quarterback rushing. To deny the read option is to pretend that the 49ers run no such system, which was Dom Capers’ game plan for the Packers.
"We didn't anticipate the quarterback running the way he did," Charles Woodson said. "I guess that was the X-factor." Yes, the only way to anticipate Colin Kaepernick keeping the ball himself and running with the speed and power of a larger Ray Rice was to have been non-comatose and vaguely interested in the NFL for last three months.
Capers was not alone in his denial this year. There is tape evidence that several defensive coordinators approached the Seahawks, Redskins and 49ers option-flavored offenses as if they were “Call Me Maybe” bus-ride videos, some Internet fad, already running its course and beneath their attention (Rob Ryan’s Cowboys never looked particularly organized against Griffin). Defensive coordinators must adapt, and Capers was just the most stubborn objector to that fact.
As for the read-option skeptical movement: NFL strategy is all about evolution, and our attitudes and expectations must evolve as schemes evolve and defenses adapt. The true skeptic is an investigator, not a naysayer or debunker, and Kaepernick’s talents are simply undeniable.
Average Starting Quarterback Denial (Eliters): Entering the weekend, this phenomenon is exemplified by Joe Flacco, a player of such obvious strengths (arm, durability) and weaknesses (moves like a cement mixer in the mud) that there should be no debate about his merits. He is an average NFL starter.
Unfortunately, the Eliters deny the existence of average NFL starters. All quarterbacks are either a) one of the three-to-five “elites,” meaning that their flatulence smells like chamomile; b) rookies and newcomers who have not screwed up yet, and c) hapless buffoons whose very existence is an affront to human decency. Into this last category go everyone from Flacco to Tony Romo. All non-elite quarterbacks must be replaced immediately, by anyone available, because only elite quarterbacks win Super Bowls or are worthy of watching and enjoying.
(Eliters will sometimes use the word “average,” but they use it as an insulting synonym for “unbearably dreadful.” See also: Peytoners.)
The only way for quarterbacks like Flacco and Matt Ryan to achieve “elite” status is to win a Super Bowl, and even then they enter a probationary period that lasts until their second Super Bowl or death. The threat of Ryan versus Flacco will probably have the Eliter movement rattled all week; had Matt Schaub also won, the movement would be in serious trouble, and high-profile Eliters might have been forced to learn something about running backs or defensive players. Luckily, Tom Brady was too elite to let that happen. Take that, Peyton Manning!
Falcons Denial (Birders): Birders are close cousins of Peytoners. They sometimes hold joint meetings and shop together for crates of powdered milk. Both Peytoners and Birders believe there is some qualitative difference between the ability to consistently win enough games to reach the playoffs and the ability to win playoff games, and their message has reached the highest echelons of power, or at least ESPN’s daytime talk show lineup.
Birders believe that the Falcons were kept from winning playoff games in the past four years because of some athletic or moral deficiency within Matt Ryan, Mike Smith or possibly Tony Gonzalez (he’s not a complete tight end, you know, like Zeke Mowatt was). Birders shrugged their shoulders after every Falcons win this year and asserted that the Falcons were guaranteed to lose in the playoffs because they lost three times in four seasons, and one data point every 487 days is the most conclusive evidence there is.
Sunday’s game proved that the Falcons can win a playoff game despite coughing up 20-0 and 27-7 leads. It proved that they can win even though their defense spent the final three quarters making critical coverage lapses and missing tackles. It proved they could squeak out a win at home despite Matt Ryan looking sloppy and downright nervous for most of the fourth quarter, and despite Smith and his staff getting tight and calling too many soft zones on defense and ill-advised screens and pitchouts on offense. It proved they could barely skate by against a team playing with much more intensity for most of the second half. In short, it proved that the Falcons could manage a win even though … well … they really did look like a team that had no idea how to throttle up its energy level, maintain its composure and play four complete quarters against a good opponent in a high-pressure situation, didn’t they?
Why, sure, I would love to read more of your Birder literature. And I will take one of these Matt Ryan is Not Elite pamphlets. Zeke Mowatt? Never heard of him. Tell me more.
(Mandatory Monday wants to take a moment to emphatically state that William Shakespeare was a real historic person. There is no evidence that he was or was not a choke artist.)